The traditional medicinal mushroom Hericium erinaceus is known for enhancing peripheral nerve regeneration through targeting nerve growth factor (NGF) neurotrophic activity. Here, we purified and identified biologically new active compounds from H. erinaceus, based on their ability to promote neurite outgrowth in hippocampal neurons. N-de phenylethyl isohericerin (NDPIH), an isoindoline compound from this mushroom, together with its hydrophobic derivative hericene A, were highly potent in promoting extensive axon outgrowth and neurite branching in cultured hippocampal neurons even in the absence of serum, demonstrating potent neurotrophic activity. Pharmacological inhibition of tropomyosin receptor kinase B (TrkB) by ANA-12 only partly prevented the NDPIH-induced neurotrophic activity, suggesting a potential link with BDNF signaling. However, we found that NDPIH activated ERK1/2 signaling in the absence of TrkB in HEK-293T cells, an effect that was not sensitive to ANA-12 in the presence of TrkB. Our results demonstrate that NDPIH acts via a complementary neurotrophic pathway independent of TrkB with converging downstream ERK1/2 activation.
Mice fed with H. erinaceus crude extract and hericene A also exhibited increased neurotrophin expression and downstream signaling, resulting in significantly enhanced hippocampal memory. Hericene A therefore acts through a novel pan-neurotrophic signaling pathway, leading to improved cognitive performance.